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A law library is a library designed to assist law students, attorneys, judges and their law clerks, and anyone else who finds it necessary to correctly determine the state of the law. Their focus on specialized information resources on the law, service to a specialized and limited clientele, and delivery of specialized services to that clientele classify them as a type of special library.
American law libraries
The largest law libraries in the world are found in the United States, due to the unique nature of American federalism and the extraordinarily complex legal system that developed as a result. The world's largest law library is the Law Library of Congress, which holds over 2.65 million volumes. The world's largest academic law library is the library of Harvard Law School, which holds over 2 million volumes. By way of contrast, the largest law library in the United Kingdom is the Bodleian Law Library, whose collection of 450,000 volumes is merely average by U.S. standards.
Broadly speaking, there are three categories of law libraries in the United States. Every law school accredited by the American Bar Association houses a law library. Public law libraries are available in many states, often in the local courthouses. Some larger law firms maintain a private library for their own attorneys, but many firms in college towns and larger cities with universities simply dispatch their attorneys to local law schools to do legal research.
A typical law library will include in its collection a large number of works not seen in other libraries, including a full set of United States Reports, one or both of the unofficial U.S. Supreme Court reporters, the West National Reporter System, the West American Digest System, official reporters from various states, the Federal Register, volumes of American Jurisprudence, bound volumes containing issues of prominent law reviews from around the country, federal and state statutes and regulations (such as the United States Code and Code of Federal Regulations), and a variety of treatises, encyclopedias, looseleaf services, and practice guides.
Large libraries may contain many additional materials covering topics like legal education, research, and writing; the history of the American legal system and profession; the history behind certain high-profile cases; techniques of oral argument; and the legislative history of important federal and state statutes.
In contrast, a small law library, at a minimum, may contain only one unofficial Supreme Court reporter, selected West national reporters and digests specific to the state in which the library is located, the United States Code, a few state-specific reporters and statutory compilations (if they exist for a particular state), and several state-specific treatises and practice guides. Most academic law library websites also contain legal research guidelines on numerous legal topics that are available to the public.
In recent years, the advent of online legal research outlets such as FindLaw, Westlaw, LexisNexis, Bloomberg Law, and HeinOnline (or in Canada, CanLII) has reduced the need for some types of printed volumes like reporters and statutory compilations. A number of law libraries have therefore reduced the availability of printed works that can easily be found on the Internet, and have increased their own Internet availability. On the other hand, some university law libraries retain extensive historical collections going back to the earliest English reports. Many law libraries also participate in the Federal Depository Library Program which provides access to government information and documents to the public at no cost. This is particularly true of law school libraries as the library at any accredited law school is automatically eligible to become a depository library under the Program.
The American Association of Law Libraries is a major alliance of American law libraries, to which most of them belong. As of 2010, it has over 5,000 member libraries. Another important association for law libraries is the Special Libraries Association.
Academic law libraries
Every accredited American law school is required by the American Bar Association to have a law library meeting certain minimum specifications with respect to quantity and quality of materials available. Some law school libraries are kept in the same building as the general library, but many are either in the law school's building, or in a separate facility altogether.
ABA requirements of law school law libraries
As of 2015, the American Bar Association has propounded rules requiring each law school's law library to include among its holdings the following "core collection":
- all reported federal court decisions and reported decisions of the highest appellate court of each state;
- all federal codes and session laws, and at least one current annotated code for each state;
- all current published treaties and international agreements of the United States;
- all current published regulations (codified and uncodified) of the federal government and the codified regulations of the state in which the law school is located;
- those federal and state administrative decisions appropriate to the programs of the law school;
- U.S. Congressional materials appropriate to the programs of the law school;
- significant secondary works necessary to support the programs of the law school, and
- those tools, such as citators and periodical indexes, necessary to identify primary and secondary legal information and update primary legal information.
The ABA also requires a library's collection to meet the academic needs of the students and research and teaching needs of the faculty.
The ABA further sets forth additional requirements, including the requirement that the law library have a full-time director who holds a law degree and a degree in library or information science or equivalent with extensive experience in librarianship. The ABA also requires that the library have sufficient staff and facilities to attend to the needs of the institution.
Many academic law librarians participate in the AALL and specifically the Academic Law Libraries special interest section.
Public law libraries
Public law libraries are available in many states, and many courthouses also have a law library. The United States Supreme Court Building houses one of the most extensive in the world, rivaled by the Law Library of Congress. New York and California by statute require all counties to maintain a public law library. While New York public law libraries have remained relatively small, the LA Law Library in Los Angeles County is currently second in size behind the Law Library of Congress among U.S. public law libraries, with a collection at just under 1 million volumes.
Public law libraries are available in many other states as well, often as departments of the state courts. Some academic law libraries provide public access as well.
Some state and federal agencies maintain law libraries focusing on their regulatory areas. One prominent example is the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which runs a National Library Network providing access to specialized material to agency researchers and the general public.
Many public law libraries participate in the AALL, and specifically in the Government Law Libraries special interest section.
Private law libraries
Some law firms and corporate legal departments maintain in-house libraries, the size and content of which vary depending on the practice area and needs of the organization. These libraries would rarely, if ever, be available to individuals outside the organization, although in some locales law firm librarians have informal lending agreements between firms. Private law libraries often participate in the AALL's Private Law Librarians & Information Professionals Special Interest Section.
Non-American law libraries
Outside of the United States, the largest and most extensive law libraries are those found in countries that follow the English common law which spread throughout the world with the expansion of the British Empire. These countries include but are not limited to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the United States, and numerous other nations - most still members of the British Commonwealth. With more than 500,000 print volumes, the largest law library in the British Commonwealth is Osgoode Hall Law School's at York University in Canada. The earliest law libraries were founded in the late 15th century in London and include Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn.
Law libraries in these common law countries can be found in generally the same form as in the United States including court/government libraries, private law firm libraries, and academic law libraries, although in somewhat different form in that the study of law in these countries differs in some respects from the U.S.
Special collections of legal literature in university and research libraries in England include the Viner collection at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (the personal library of Charles Viner, bequeathed to the Radcliffe Library in 1756); a collection of English legal manuscripts at Cambridge University Library; the Smuts collection on Commonwealth law, the Maitland collection on legal history, and the Clark, Roby and Buckland collections relating to Roman law, all in the Squire Law Library, a department of the Cambridge University Library; and the Slade-Baker collection of correspondence accumulated by the Slade-Baker firm of solicitors in Bewdley which is in Birmingham University Library.
- List of sources of law in the United States
- American Association of Law Libraries
- American Bar Association
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- Pickering, Oliver (1996) A Guide to the Research Collections of Member Libraries. Leeds: CURL, 1996; p. 62